The 2016 Disabilities Act mandates 5% reservation in higher education for all persons with disabilities. But in practice, students with intellectual disabilities are hardly able to avail of this important benefit. They are frequently unable to compete with those with physical disabilities for the reserved seats, or to attend the same curriculum, thus frustrating their aspirations for the collegiate experience and qualification. Recognizing this, the Supreme Court has in a recent case directed a college to consider creating courses which cater to the specific needs of such persons, or to earmark seats for them in existing courses.
In the case of Aryan Raj vs. Government College of Arts, Chandigarh, the petitioner being a person with intellectual disability was denied equal opportunity to gain admission to the Diploma in Fine Arts course in the Government College of Arts, Chandigarh in the disciplines of Painting and Applied Art. Although the college provided 5% reservation for candidates with disabilities, it did not distinguish the seats reserved for intellectual and physical disabilities, and the selection was based on performance in a common aptitude test. In the result, all the reserved seats were taken by persons with physical disabilities. The petitioner approached the Punjab and Haryana High Court, and subsequently, the Supreme Court seeking that the college provide separate reserved seats for the intellectual disability category. He also asked for a special board comprising experts in the field of intellectual disability to assess his fitness for the Diploma in Fine Arts course, instead of a common aptitude test. The Human Rights Law Network, assisted by the Disability Law Initiative, argued for the petitioner. In a significant judgment, on 8th July, 2020 the Supreme Court said:
“15. We can however, not lose sight of the fact that intellectually/mentally challenged persons have certain limitations, which are not there in physically challenged persons. The subject experts would thus, be well advised to examine the feasibility of creating a course which caters to the specific needs of such persons. They may also examine increasing the number of seats in the discipline of Painting and Applied Art with a view to accommodating such students.”
With this important direction, the Court opened the door to the college for persons with intellectual disabilities such as the petitioner.
Case Analysis and Opinion
Colleges and universities do not provide specially designed courses for students with intellectual disabilities, but rather reserve a common pool of seats for all students with disabilities in the existing courses. This frequently results in the former not being selected for admission. Even assuming admission in college is obtained, there usually are no modified curricula or separate evaluation / grading systems for students with intellectual disabilities, so that they may be able to complete the course and be awarded a degree or a certificate.
Section 32 of the 2016 Disabilities Act provides that 5% of seats in institutions of higher education be reserved for persons with benchmark disabilities. Although a break up of seats amongst the different categories of disabilities is not specifically provided, the Act clearly intends that candidates from the different disability categories, including those with intellectual disabilities, have a fair chance at higher education. In the instant case the Court recognized this, and directed the college to consider earmarking seats separately for students with intellectual disabilities, either in existing courses or special courses suited for them.
The key points to consider in the case:
The colleges and universities have a legal obligation to ensure differentiated higher education for persons with intellectual disabilities, so that the promise in the 2016 Disabilities Act for inclusive higher education is realized. This would include providing separate reservations and selection criteria for students from this category, as also modified course curricula and grading / evaluation systems. Not doing so would mean that unequals are being treated as equals, as the differentiated cognitive abilities of those with intellectual and physical disabilities are not being recognized. If these requirements are not addressed by institutions of higher education, they will be in violation of not only the spirit and purpose of the 2016 Disabilities Act, but also of Article 14, the non-discrimination clause of the Constitution of India.